India: Conserving medicinal plants, sustaining livelihoods

Men harvesting medicinal plants in India
More than 60 percent of India’s population depends upon traditional medicines for sustenance and healthcare. Photo: Ishan Tankha/UNDP India

At 52, Janaki Devi, a traditional healer in the state of Uttarakhand, India, may not have received a formal education, yet the proficiency with which she prescribes herbal medicines has people travel from far and wide to consult her.

Up until a few years ago, traditional healers like Janaki inherited their skills from their families or through word-of-mouth. With fewer people from the younger generation interested in the profession, and no record or inventory of India’s numerous medicinal plants, their uses and appropriate harvesting techniques, this unique oral knowledge was at risk.


  • India is the world’s second largest exporter of medicinal plants after China, providing 35 million workdays to the poor and generating a turnover of US$ 2.5 billion annually.
  • An estimated 316 species of medicinal plants in India are under threat of extinction, endangering livelihoods and healthcare.
  • The project helped set up conservation areas and biodiversity registers to document traditional healers’ knowledge.

Since 2008, a UNDP partnership with the Ministry of Environment and Forests, the Government and the Global Environment Facility, is encouraging communities of traditional healers across the ecologically-fragile states of Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh - home to about 40 percent of India’s medicinal plants - to document their knowledge about local health traditions and threatened medicinal plants.

As part of this effort, People’s Biodiversity Registers help maintain a valuable repository of India’s biological resources, and safeguard against misappropriation of knowledge and bio-piracy. So far, sixteen committees have been set up to document the biological resources found in the forests and local knowledge associated with it.

“It’s hard work,” says Ganga Sangi Vohra, a 57-year-old traditional healer who keeps a register with details of all his patients and the advice given to them. “It is important to know when and how to harvest medicinal plants to ensure potency of medicines.”

In Bodmallah village, a project site 4,000 feet high in the Himalayas, villagers are now receiving training on sustainable harvesting, drying, grading, packing and storing tejpatta, a locally-grown leaf known for its myriad culinary and medicinal properties. Not only have the trainings led to conservation of globally significant medicinal plants, but better quality of the leaf has also resulted in villagers earning greater revenue for the produce.

India is the world’s second largest exporter of medicinal plants after China. Collection and processing provides 35 million workdays annually to the poor, generating a turnover of US$ 2.5 billion annually. However, rising demand and destructive harvesting practices are not only threatening the survival of many species, but also the livelihood of the people who depend upon the produce. An estimated 316 species in India are under threat of extinction.

As part of the effort to promote sustainable use and preserve threatened medicinal plants, conservation areas have been set up in natural forests managed by State departments in collaboration with local communities. So far, 21 conservation areas covering 32,000 hectares across the 3 project states, help protect 32 globally significant medicinal plants.

Video: Herbal healers in India

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